Fwd: Intel, Once Again, Plans to Remake Radio Circuitry

Mark Thompson wb9qzb_groups at yahoo.com
Mon Feb 20 17:19:18 CST 2012


Technology News and Insights
	* FEBRUARY 19, 2012, 12:06 PM
Intel, Once Again, Plans to Remake Radio Circuitry
By Don Clark 

Intel has few peers when it comes to driving digital technology. Now the 
Silicon Valley giant believes it has penetrated one of the last bastions where 
another approach still prevails: radio. 

The company is using a technical conference in San Francisco this week to 
disclose progress in designing new versions of key radio components that are 
typically built using analog technology and different materials than the silicon 
used to create most digital chips. 
It’s referring to things like power 
amplifiers, transmitters, modulators and other “radio frequency” components, 
often collectively described by the initials RF. 

“We are getting close to having the complete kit of digital RF building 
blocks for these radios,” says Justin Rattner, Intel’s chief technology 
Why should we care? It all comes back to Moore’s Law, the technology tenet 
Intel rides for all its worth. 

The relentless pace of transistor miniaturization that Intel co-founder 
Gordon Moore first described in 1965 keeps bringing us more inexpensive and 
useful microprocessors and memory chips, not to mention devices like laptop 
computers and iPhones. 
If RF circuitry can be produced in the same chip 
factories–with the same ever-declining cost per function–radios used to send 
data over networks like 4G or Wi-Fi can be much less expensive and ubiquitous, 
Rattner argues. 

A logical extension of this approach is to place RF components alongside 
others on a chip, saving space and energy and cost in products like smartphones. 
One of Intel’s papers at the International 
Solid-State Circuits Conference  http://isscc.org/ 
describes such a creation, a chip that has a 
Wi-Fi transceiver and two Intel Atom processor cores on the same piece of 

Devices called “system on a chip,” or SoCs, already are commonplace in 
cellphones. Many of them include a key communications device called a baseband 
processor alongside a conventional processor that runs application software on 
the device. 

But the RF components that actually modulate and amplify radio waves are 
usually kept separate, in part because their signals can interfere with 
operations on other parts of the chip, Rattner says. 
Mitigating that 
interference was a key part of the Intel effort, he adds, requiring 
collaboration from engineers in its research, development and manufacturing 
groups to come up with the right approach. 

The results give Intel “great confidence” that it will be able to come up 
with true single-chip products with RF components for phones, tablet computers 
and other devices where size and power consumption are paramount, says Rattner, 
while conceding that such developments are at least several years away. 

There’s reason to inject at least a note of skepticism here. A company that 
has bet its future on billion-dollar factories and the most advanced production 
processes may be expected to think that they are the most efficient way for 
producing just about anything. 

But many makers of analog chips have effectively, and profitably, done just 
the opposite–reducing costs steadily by using older manufacturing recipes, 
RF-friendly materials like silicon germanium and factories that were paid off 
decades ago. 

Intel’s credibility about timing is also subject to question. Rattner’s 
predecessor as Intel’s top technologist–Patrick Gelsinger, who is now a senior 
executive at EMC–ten years ago made similar statements to kick off an effort he 
called Radio Free Intel. 

“Those back at the ranch were scratching their heads,” recalls Rattner, who 
says Gelsinger was prescient in setting a technical goal but underestimated the 
time and effort required. “We spent the better part of the past decade figuring 
it all out.” 

Besides radio components, Intel is using the event known as ISSCC to present 
technical papers in a variety of other areas–particularly chips designed to 
sharply reduce power consumption by operating at close to the “threshold 
voltage” of transistors, the amount of current needed to turn them on. 

Another focus is on a new way for designing components known as 
floating-point units, which are involved in handling many mathematics 
The approach uses “variable” precision–in some cases reducing the 
number of bits to express numbers in scientific calculations–which can actually 
lead to more accurate results and save energy and computing time, Rattner says.
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